If there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear about Donald Trump’s 2024 bid for the presidency, it is that this campaign is going to be a far darker endeavor than even the two that came before it.
“This is the final battle,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. This is it.” And at his first campaign rally on Saturday, in Waco, Tex.: “2024 is the final battle. It’s going to be the big one.”
True, dystopian imagery is not exactly new to Trump, given that his inaugural address is most remembered for its reference to “American carnage.” But when he ran in 2016, Trump promised to be the miracle worker who “alone can fix it.” This time around, he asks voters to think of him as “your retribution.”
As Yale University sociologist Philip Gorski, co-author of the 2022 book “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy,” told me: “He’s positing himself as the long arm of the Lord, the long arm of divine vengeance.”
Nor is Trump’s rhetoric necessarily landing only with a religious audience. It meshes well with QAnon conspiracy theories. And apocalyptic story lines are having something of a secular, post-pandemic cultural moment as well — including in hit shows such as HBO’s “The Last of Us.”
Even so, that a leading presidential contender is framing a campaign around end-of-the-world scenarios is not only weird, but more than a little dangerous, given that, for those who take Trump seriously, it has the potential to create a permission structure for violence. The presumption fostered by apocalyptic pronouncements is that “everything is permitted if those are the stakes,” Gorski said.
Last week, Trump directly stoked that fire, along with what turned out to be false rumors of his imminent indictment by a New York grand jury.
In a posting on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) a “degenerate psychopath,” and posted an image of himself with a baseball bat next to Bragg — something his own lawyer called, in an understatement, “ill-advised.”
Taking aim at Bragg in another social media missive, Trump wrote: “What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?”
Trump’s campaign says that he picked Waco for his first campaign rally because it is a relatively easy drive from several metropolitan centers in a state that is solidly in his camp. But he also chose to hold the event during the 30th anniversary of a weeks-long siege of the Branch Davidian compound near there by federal law enforcement agents. The cult was led by David Koresh, who promised his followers that he would break the “seventh seal” and bring about the end of the world.
Nearly 80 Branch Davidians died at the compound outside Waco as it was consumed by fire during a standoff with federal agents, in what many on the far right have come to regard as a touchstone, one that has reverberations in Trump’s own claims of being victimized by an overreaching government.
Charles Pace, pastor at a chapel which stands where the Branch Davidian compound once did, told the New York Times that Trump is “the anointed of God” and “the battering ram that God is using to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.” It is not unusual to hear Trump described in similarly messianic terms by his most devoted followers.
Yet, beyond rallying Trump’s own core of supporters, doomsday is not a political message that is likely to have much appeal. Americans — with Trump’s own election being a notable exception — tend to go with the candidate who offers the more optimistic vision of the future. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Bill Clinton’s place called Hope. Barack Obama’s “hope and change.”
But what’s also true is that, as early as it is in the election season, Trump stands at the forefront of the Republican field. And alas, the end — at least as the presidential season goes — is nowhere near.